"Are you sure that you are going to go to heaven when you die?" "Do you think that my dad is in heaven?" "Do dogs go to heaven?" We sure hear questions like this a lot, but why aren't more people asking questions like, "What exactly is heaven, anyway?" It's as if everyone has already made up their minds about what heaven is - about where it is and what they're going to find there - that they just make a huge assumption in the "what" department and focus instead on the "how".
Well, we know it's gold, right? And that it's in space? No, wait, there are supposed to be clouds, so it can't be in space. And when we get there, we're going to have wings and harps...no, that's in the cartoons; it's probably nothing like that...right?
When I was younger, I had the brilliant notion that "heaven" is probably just whatever you want it to be. And that seems to work out pretty well with most people's idea that you can get into heaven pretty much any way you want to. You write the ticket and you design the destination! For my part, I wanted my "heaven" to be an enormous castle filled with endless libraries of books. I wanted all of my favorite authors to continue writing my favorite fiction series into eternity (ahem...NERD!). The greatest eternal existence that I could imagine was that of a consumer of other people's work! I don't think it's possible for me to be so glad about being so wrong!
So maybe it doesn't make much sense to imagine a place called "heaven" being exactly what I want it to be, and maybe it's not too smart to think that I can decide how and why I arrive at this place, but what should I think about "heaven"? Is there some authoritative source of information somewhere on the subject?
Most people have some kind of idea that heaven has to do with God, but many never move beyond that aspect of the deal. When we do something that our conscience tells us is wrong, we feel guilty - like God is not pleased - and we subsequently feel that these actions may jeopardize our chances of making it to heaven. Alternately, when we do something that we feel good about - something that makes us proud of ourselves - we think that these actions may commend us in some way to God, and heaven looks a lot more like a sure bet.
Once again, the problem with all of these notions is that they all come from our own feelings. And though most folks like to decide a great deal of things based on what just "feels right" to them, we also have this nagging doubt that says, "What if I'm wrong?"
So let's look beyond ourselves for a moment and ask what the Bible teaches about "heaven". The Bible is a book that claims to come from God (2 Peter 1:21). So if God has something to say about what "heaven" is and how a person goes about getting there, we'll probably find it in the Bible.
The first thing that we discover that might be kind of surprising is that the word "heaven" in the Bible literally just means "sky". The Bible uses the Hebrew word 'shamayim' and the Greek word 'ouranos' exactly the same way that we use 'heavens' in the plural. The Bible doesn't contain phrases like, "How can I get to heaven?" or "By doing these things, you can go to heaven." In fact, it hardly ever talks about "heaven" as a place that people go at all (except for a couple of brief mentions of prophets who saw the earth from high above during some important visions, and one other example that I will cite below).
So where did this notion of "heaven" as our eternal home come from anyway? We can find in the Bible promises of eternal life to those who believe in Jesus Christ (John 3:16), but then we also see that people who believe in Jesus die just like everyone else. So, did they get their eternal life in some other state somewhere else, or was that promise put on hold until a later date, or what? Paul gives the best explanation in 2 Corinthians 5:1-10:
For we know that if the tent that is our earthly home is destroyed, we have a building from God, a house not made with hands, eternal in the heavens. For in this tent we groan, longing to put on our heavenly dwelling, if indeed by putting it on we may not be found naked. For while we are still in this tent, we groan, being burdened—not that we would be unclothed, but that we would be further clothed, so that what is mortal may be swallowed up by life. He who has prepared us for this very thing is God,who has given us the Spirit as a guarantee.
So we are always of good courage. We know that while we are at home in the body we are away from the Lord, for we walk by faith, not by sight. Yes, we are of good courage, and we would rather be away from the body and at home with the Lord. So whether we are at home or away, we make it our aim to please him. For we must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ, so that each one may receive what is due for what he has done in the body, whether good or evil.
This is most likely where the common notion of "heaven" comes from. If our body dies ("is destroyed"), then we have a house not made with hands "eternal in the heavens". It is important to understand that this is not talking about a literal house that we are going to inherit in the sky, however. It is referring to the fact that the true life of the believer is inChrist, and that during the time between when this physical body dies and when it is raised again incorruptible by Jesus, we will be "at home with the Lord".
According to the Bible, eternal life is not about a place (and certianly not a place of our own imagining!). Rather, it is about a person: Jesus. How many people do you think there are that either expect or desire to go to "heaven" who don't care the first thing about Jesus Christ? And if a person doesn't really care much about Jesus - can't be bothered to come to a worship service, ignores the Bible, and spurns His commands - then what makes you think that person will actually wantthe eternal life that He offers? After all, the Biblical notion of eternal life is full of exactly those things: worship (Revelation 22:3), learning more about God (1 Corinthians 13:12), and eternal sinless obedience (Romans 6:17-22)!
So rather than thinking of "heaven" or the "afterlife" as being whatever we want it to be, the Bible paints for us a much less "us-centered" picture. Eternal life is not made-to-order. Eternal life isJesus Christ! He is "the resurrection and the life" (John 11:25) and "the way, the truth, and the life" (John 14:6)! Don't settle for a future hope filled with anything less than the God who created everything. Castles full of stories cannot compare to the presence of the Author of all stories - and the Inventor of pleasure itself. Set you faith on Him, and put your hope in Him, and trust Him to bring you home to where He is, and let that be what excites you most: Him.
"Love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your mind, and with all your strength."